The Agony Antagonist

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Children hump and dogs urinating, everyone's got to make a living

Emily Yoffe is Dear Prudence, hostess and chief towel-snapper at online journal Slate’s entrée into the world of advicery, and like most of Slate’s offerings, Dear Prudence earns about a 7 (out of 10) on the imaginary scale in my head that measures good, entertaining, and cutting-edge writing. Most newspapers—the ones that I read anyway (I read exactly one newspaper)—consistently rate about a 6, and when you turn to all online writing outlets (this page included, bien sûr), the rating drops alarmingly; so even though 7 seems pretty stingy, I mean it as a compliment. Really I do.

In her most recent column (March 22), Prudence tackles a few interesting issues, one of which presents the disturbing image of a four-year-old girl, flush-faced, in almost a trancelike state, humping an ottoman. Yes, I said it: Humping an ottoman. The girl’s mother, Puzzled, says she has “generally been tolerant of” the behavior (which she calls “doing that thing,” and goddamn if that isn’t the best euphemism I’ve heard in a while) but realizes that it can be off-putting in certain situations, such as when sitting around the dinner table with the in-laws, shopping at the grocery store, or just being in any situation that involves you, your hump-happy daughter, someone else, and an inanimate object of a certain height (coffee table, stairs, chairs).

Prudie gives the only advice that anyone could give, really, which is that the girl is at an age where she should realize that there are some things that are appropriate only in certain places (like making peepee potty, for example), and that anytime that old familiar feeling should arise, she should abscond to the bathroom in order to make sweet love to the toilet. Now, that’s all fine and good, mind you—walking the line between absolute permissiveness and early-instilled bodily shame—but it got me thinking: How, exactly, does one have that conversation with a four-year-old? I’ve known a few four-year-olds in my life, and I can say with absolute certainty that there are four-year-olds and there are four-year-olds. A friend of mine, in fact, just the other day was recounting a story about his four-year-old daughter, in which he was feeding his girl dinner and the cat jumped on the table. “Fucking cat,” he said, knocking it onto the floor. “Daddy, you don’t like fucking cats very much, do you?” At which point he realized that he needed to explain that although “fucking” was a word that he used, and that she was welcome to use it around him, it wasn’t a word to be used around, say, grandparents, teachers, other kids, etc. So that’s a smart kid, I guess: one who can listen to and respond to logic. I know not all kids can do this, though. My niece, for example, at that age would have listened to the explanation dull-eyed and slack-jawed, and as soon as it was over started running away from her lecturer, shouting “Fucking fucking fucking fucking!” until someone yanked her into her time-out chair and started talking about taking things away from her if she didn’t stop that infernal cursing.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s an online article. There shouldn’t be any word-count issues, and if there were, why not simply run the one letter this week, with an expanded explanation of how Dear Prudie plans on getting the four-year-old child to understand and apply appropriate behavior in circumstances in which everyone around the child is talking about boring, boring things and “doing that thing” just feels so good. (I’m reminded suddenly of two of my own childhood friends who used to hump the floor—they called it “doing the bumps.” This was long before I did my own bumps, in college, and it was a completely different thing. I think my mom got me to refrain from doing the bumps by telling me such behavior was beneath me. Which was true: I chose the more sophisticated route of getting myself off by inching up and down a banister in our basement staircase. Oh, how I loved that banister. But I digress.)

Another thing: The tone of Puzzled’s letter implies an absolute lack of boundaries. Take a look at the first sentences: “I am the mother of a beautiful, clever, generally well-behaved 4-year-old girl. I adore her, and she's a delight to be with in public and sweet as pie with other adults.” Just a guess, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Puzzled is the mother who looks admiringly at her child as the little beast runs into your shins with her tiny shopping cart at the Fred Meyer. Oh, wouldn’t want to stifle little snookums’ creativity, would we? Little snookums wanna be all full up wit Fwee Will! Ugh. One hopes that Puzzled somehow figures out how to implement Prudie’s plan, seeing as how she so clearly has never spoken to her child before except to slather her with the most opulent praise.

Letter #4 is from Well-Mannered Doggie Owner, and indeed she does sound to live up to her name. WMDO was out walking her dog, she says (on leash, one hopes), when she met up with a man she’d never seen before, just as her dog was making peepee potty on someone’s lawn. “You know I live here,” he says, shaking his head. “Genius.” WMDO does not feel she was in the wrong in this situation. Does Prudie?

You bet your sweet ass she does, WMDO. Me? Not so much. Look, here’s the deal: From her answer, it appears that Prudie lives either on a 700-acre ranch or in the middle of downtown Manhattan, where there are no yards and everything is concrete or public property. Because honestly? Really? Truly? There is no way that anyone who owns a dog and doesn’t live in one of those two locations could possibly follow her advice, which is—for anyone who wants a good laugh—to only let your dog pee on your land or on public property. For the rest of us—anyone who lives in an apartment building in a mixed-residential area or in a house on a smaller lot—forget about it. Even if you have a yard that’s large enough for purposes of everyday excretion but you’d like to take your dog on a walk around the block every now and then—in fact, even if you’ve made sure that your dog just peed before you take him on said walk—you’re going to run into trouble. Dogs pee a lot, frankly. And dogs are unpredictable, too. Some dogs like to pee in the same spot day after day; with others, you’ll take them to last week’s favorite spot and … nuthin.

Prudie’s right, of course, in that once a dog pees somewhere all dogs will pee there. No property owner is going to be happy to see a dog peeing on his lawn; but on the other hand, there are a lot of unforeseen consequences of property ownership. In my parent’s neighborhood, near the high school, there’s a lot of garbage from fast-food restaurants and ashtray detritus. If you own property near a body of water, you’ll likely face accretion or deletion of your land. Maybe the house next door to yours always has the loudest, more abrasive Christmas light display. These are all known exceptions to private property ownership, and every buyer takes them on. You want a yard that’s totally free of dog piss? Fence it in. Buy a condo. Buy a houseboat. You have options. (Some of them are stupid, apparently.)

Back to the issue of being a well-mannered dog owner (and Lord knows I’m not one) or a well-mannered anything, for that matter, listen: My rule of thumb? Just be better-mannered than most other people and no one will have the right to take you to task. In the case of dog ownership, this means (1) keep your dog on a leash, (2) don’t let your dog bark uncontrollably, (3) pick up poop, (4) don’t let your dog jump on people unless they’ve indicated that they like it, (5) if your dog is mean, keep it away from other people. Another example: At a restaurant recently, I told my boyfriend that we were entitled to sit at a four-top for lunch because it adjoined a four-top that one lady had claimed for herself. “We’re not the biggest assholes here, she is, and that’s what matters.” Unfortunately, the lady heard me, which actually did make me the biggest asshole there. But you know what I mean.

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1 Comments:

At April 2, 2007 at 12:22 PM , Blogger George said...

I think you're right about the humping kid. We know the goal is to make the kid understand the different contexts in which something is appropriate. Any idiot knows that, but what happens whena kid can't take that kind of information on board? Kid's under 10 or so are, in many cases, functionally brain damaged. They are under construction, so there are often back-ups on the cognitive highway. Their little brains go completely off line and at times it seems like the only way to get thir attention is a stiff electrical shock. But since we don't approve the BF Skinner method what do ya do? Savage would have consulted an expert.

Do people really get upset about dogs peeing? The ppo I understand, but who cares about where dogs pee, provided it is outside?

 

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